ASHLAND — The heady aroma of wet earth and decaying leaves summons shoppers from yards away, luring them to forager Louis Jeandin.

ASHLAND — The heady aroma of wet earth and decaying leaves summons shoppers from yards away, luring them to forager Louis Jeandin.

"Those are Oregon truffles," a woman exclaims "Oh, my gosh, that's incredible."

"I worship these things," a man chimes in.

As Jeandin graciously cuts open a fungus specimen, cradling it in his palms so appreciative customers at Ashland Food Co-op can take a wiff, other passersby are repelled by the mushrooms that, at first glance, more closely resemble moldy dirt clods.

"It's a very unique flavor, and it's a flavor that really permeates," says Jerry Evans, owner of The Jacksonville Inn. "There's not too many grocery stores that you can walk in to and buy truffles."

But Jeandin is doing just that, peddling the wild produce he harvests in the Willamette Valley and primarily sells to high-end Rogue Valley restaurants. Jeandin also plans to have truffles for sale at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market when it opens in March.

"It's so hard to find them," says Jon Boswell of Jacksonville.

"We've never found the whole ones like this," says his wife, Billie Boswell, explaining that the couple planned to stretch the single truffle they purchased from Jeandin over several meals. The first would be chicken and dumplings, the dough spiked with truffle shavings, Boswell says.

Jeandin plies samples of truffle gelato, as prepared by chefs at The Jacksonville Inn, where he works as a waiter, and passes out short, uncomplicated recipes featuring both the white and black truffle varieties.

"The simpler the better," Jeandin says.

Truffle recipes and cooking demonstrations will be mainstays of this weekend's Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene. Organizers of the fourth annual event at Valley River Inn say it's the first festival in North America to celebrate the iconic fungi so prized in culinary circles.

Most of the festival's lectures, classes and its Grand Truffle Dinner will set participants back at least $100. But $15 buys a ticket to Sunday's Oregon Truffle Marketplace and includes tastings.

Late winter marks the high season for truffles, which pop up in fir forests beginning around Christmas and fade back into the woods come Easter, Jeandin says.

"It feeds the tree, and the tree feeds the mushroom, so it's really something special."

Elusive and labor-intensive, truffles make up less than 1 percent of the 2,000 pounds of mushrooms — including local morels and coastal chanterelles — that Jeandin harvests wild every year. The truffles' price depends on the supply and work involved.

"You don't see them, so you have to dig with a rake," Jeandin says. "They are invisible."

When one customer asks Jeandin if he uses a dog or a pig to sniff out truffles, the forager — like so many others — deftly evades questions about how to find his quarry.

"For one, it's a secret," Jeandin says. "No one is going to tell you how to do it.

"A lot of bribing," he laughs. "Twelve-packs of beer go a long way."

Jeandin usually returns to the Rogue Valley from each truffle-hunting trip with 2 pounds of fungi that will fetch several hundred dollars. Although they can be a hard sell and have a relatively short shelf life, a golf ball-sized truffle can be had for about $10. Jeandin deals directly with customers who can contact him at ljeandin@charter.net.

French and Italian species are more pungent and prized, but renowned chef and Oregon native James Beard is known for saying the state's truffles hold their own. Maintaining their mystery after they've been plucked from the forest floor and dusted off, truffles are a fleeting pleasure, one cooks must capture at their peak.

"You don't eat truffle when you want to eat truffle," Jeandin says.

"You eat them they are ready."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.